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Crew Team Races Dragon Boats in Hong Kong

By Richard L. Callan

In a change of scene, the Harvard light-weight crew spent about 24 hours together in an airplane last week.

The athletes were flying home from an all-expenses paid trop to Hong Kong, where they were one of two American teams participating in the annual Dragon Boat races.

The crew raced against approximately 90 teams from around the world competing in special dragon boats.

While the oarsmen made if only as far as the preliminaries, they just missed qualifying for the second round by a traction of a second. Among in Hong Kong Harbor, they faced happy seas, due in part to a large wake from passing freighters

"It made for a very tough race, "said Coach Robert Leahey, adding, "It was a deep water harbor and there's no way of practicing in similar conditions in Cambridge"

The origins of the festival date from the fourth century B C. and it commemorates the death of Chu Yuan, a legendary Chinese poet and patriot who cast himself into the Millow River in an act of protest.

In their first preliminary heat, an event open to all boats, the lightweights placed third and in the second event, for all international crews they came in fifth--just short of finishing with a qualifying time

Posting a record time, a team from the People's Republic of China finished first in both races.

The other American team, the U.S. Rowing from Philadelphia, however, failed to finish the race as their boat sank in the first beat "The boats are designed for really light people," said crew member Justin Kermond 84, adding. "We were lightweight but still significantly heavier than most of the other crews there"

The Chinese crews are made up of short, stocky guys, which gives them an advantage he said.

The U.S. Rowing team finished fourth overall.

Because of the weight problem, the Harvardians had to decrease the number in the boat from 20, the normal size, to 18.

The rowers raced in the traditional dragon boats, which are very different from a normal crew shell. The 43 feet long, five feet wide structure, made of teakwood, commonly have leaking problems.

A taikong (coxswain) beats in a drum in tempo at the front, with an oarsman at the rear.

The boats carry a horned green dragon head at the stem and a green tail at the bow, They must be "blessed" before the vessel can be called seaworthy, in a ritual where the pupils of the dragon eyes are "dotted" in.

Harvard's dragon boat, donated by the First National Bank of Boston, was initiated by a visiting Buddhist abbot back in early June at the Newell Boat House. The team, however, practiced in another boat, loaned temporarily by Jordan Marsh Company.

The rowing technique also differs from the Cantabrigians' usual style. Only the arms are used, as the oarsmen sit on immobile wooden benches.

As a result, the action is anaerobic, which fires the arm muscles quickly. "It's not as complicated as the normal stroke, and uses fewer muscles," said Coach Leahey, adding that it is "very hard work" The stroke rate is also faster man a regular crew shell, about 90 strokes a minute.

In addition to the choppy waters, the team also had to overcome the effects of jet lag because of the 12-hour time difference.

"It's analogous to what it would be like if you were to try to row at 2.30 in the morning," according to Dr Charles A. Czeisler'74, assistant professor of medicine at the Medical School, who studies neuroendochronology and sleep patterns. While Czeisler advises preparing for the time change well in advance, the team did not follow a strict time change regimen for this event.

The Hong Kong Tourist Association provided accomodations and meals for the visiting teams, while the flights were donated by United Air Lines.

"We were treated very well," Kermond says, "There were dinners every night in different restaurants, and most of the people were really nice to us. The dragon boat races are part of a holiday for Hong Kong," he adds.

While Kermond, along with several other seniors, had to forego the Commencement exercises to participate, he says it was worth it. "If someone offers you a free trip to Hong Kong, that's lot more exciting than a graduation ceremony. Besides, I went to it last year," he said.

"I think they had a great trip," said Harvard Athletic Director John P. Reardon Jr. '60. "They did a lot of things and were exhausted. I think they had a hell of a time."

But Reardon added that a Harvard team not compete in the event next year, despite Harvard's new dragon boat, "Under the Ivy rules, any group can leave the country only once in four years, other than going to Canada," he said. Yet an annual exception is made for what Reardon called "special events" like the yearly races at Henley in England.

The regulation is designed to prevent extra recruiting advantages for a particular university "There has to be a balance," Reardon added, "otherwise we could say, 'Come to Harvard, we always go to Hong Kong.'"

Two officials, Baird Professor of Science Dudley R. Herschbach and his wife Georgene flew to Hong Kong immediately after Commencement. Herschbach, who is still travelling in Asia, said before leaving that he expected primarily to play a ceremonial role, acting as a cheerleader.

The Herschbachs served as special representatives of Harvard while in the Orient.

Herschbach said before the trip that the new and different skill might provide a welcome breather from the normal crew practice and perhaps exercise different muscle groups as well.

The trip was also important in other way," Leahey said, "while the skills involved are simple, they worked together well as a team and were probably the best-prepared novices there."

So will Harvard's dragon boat simply sit in Newell Boat House for the next three years? Leahey thinks not, "We might take it out for to an occasional paddle just for fun," he said

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